Tom Steyer’s $100 Million Bet

Tom Steyer’s $100 Million Bet

The billionaire activist used to want to impeach Donald Trump for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Now he’s running to replace him.


Editor’s note—Tuesday, Jul. 10, 2019: Tom Steyer has spent the last 21 months campaigning to impeach Donald Trump. Now, he’s campaigning to replace him. In a four minute video released July 9, Steyer announced that he is running for president “to take the corporate control out of our politics.” The former hedge fund billionaire and major Democratic Party donor did not mention impeachment or Trump in his announcement, and he referenced climate change, long his signature issue, only in passing as one more example of how profit-obsessed corporations are destroying our present and our future. Instead, Steyer invoked his recent efforts to build grassroots power to close corporate tax loopholes, block environmental rollbacks by Big Oil and elect more public-minded officials. “Really what we’re trying to do is make democracy work by pushing power down to the people,” Steyer, wearing jeans and a work shirt inside a tidy barn, said in the video. Entering a Democratic race that was already almost absurdly overcrowded and where candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have claimed the anti-corporate mantle, how will Steyer distinguish himself from the pack? One thing is certain: lack of funds won’t be a problem. A spokesman told the New York Times that Steyer plans to spend “at least $100 million” on his presidential campaign.

A year ago, The Nation’s Mark Hertsgaard interviewed Steyer about his work against climate change and his efforts to turn impeachment into a 2020 campaign issue. That report follows.

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When Tom Steyer was making millions of dollars a year running his hedge fund, Farallon Capital Management, the secret to success was simple: “You try to figure out what’s going to happen and how to be on the right side of it,” he explains. But “figuring out what’s going to happen” can amount to predicting the future, and that’s much easier said than done.

Steyer was about as good as it gets at mastering that trick. Long before he became the biggest spender in American electoral politics, a climate-change crusader, and the most prominent voice urging the impeachment of President Trump, Steyer spent 26 years at the highest levels of big-money investing. His personal fortune—$1.61 billion as of 2018—is one measure of his success. So is the win/loss record behind that fortune: Until the 2008 financial collapse, Farallon averaged annual returns of almost 15 percent, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Which means that Steyer was right about “what’s going to happen” a hell of a lot more often than he was wrong.

Failing to properly anticipate the future is what many on the left are getting wrong about impeachment, Steyer believes, especially the overcautious Democrats in Washington. It’s not simply that Trump should be impeached for his unlawful, corrupt, and dangerous behavior; it’s that, over time, more and more ordinary citizens will come to believe that he needs to be impeached. Steyer, who founded the Need to Impeach campaign last October, doesn’t come right out and say that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer—the House and Senate minority leaders, respectively—are missing the point. But when pressed a second time, he doesn’t deny it.

“Our thesis has been that the president’s behavior in office would continue to be reckless, dangerous, and lawless, and that is what has happened,” Steyer argues. Wearing a gray hoodie and running shoes in the San Francisco office of his nonprofit advocacy group, NextGen America, Steyer adds, “We anticipated that things would get worse, and that that would make more people agree this president must be impeached.”

Steyer is certainly the loudest of the people calling for Trump’s impeachment, but he was not the first. Free Speech for People, a good-government group based in Austin, Texas, has been pushing for impeachment since the day Trump took the oath of office. Trump “created a constitutional crisis at that moment [by] refusing to divest fully from his business interests and treating the Oval Office as a profit-making enterprise at the public expense,” John Bonifaz, the group’s co-founder and president, asserted on Democracy Now! “We now see the list of impeachable offenses growing by the day…. [T]his president acts like he is above the law.”

Impressive numbers back up the pro-impeachment argument. In January, 45 percent of US registered voters supported initiating impeachment proceedings against Trump, should Democrats regain control of the House in 2018, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. In late March, a survey by Public Policy Polling found 46 percent of voters supporting impeachment.

These are extraordinary data points, for a number of reasons. For nearly half the country’s population to want the president impeached is an unprecedented expression of no confidence, a much more widespread repudiation than preceded the moves to impeach Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Equally striking is that so many Americans held this view even though impeachment was not being discussed much by the news media or advocated by the opposition party. Scholars of public opinion have documented that citizens’ views are powerfully influenced by such “elite cues,” with support for a given idea (such as climate change) rising when the news media and politicians are talking about it, and declining when they’re not. That some 45 percent of Americans favored Trump’s impeachment in the absence of such elite cues suggests that many more people might agree if the media and politicians talked about impeachment more.

And this 45-plus percent support was measured months ago, before the revelations about Trump’s reimbursement of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for paying hush money to the porn actress Stormy Daniels; before Trump’s own order that the Justice Department investigate the investigation into his dealings with Russia; and before whatever fresh violation of laws or norms might occur before this article is published. Nor can this support be attributed solely to animus from the political left; the left simply isn’t that big in the United States. Only 76 percent of Democrats (compared with 7 percent of Republicans) supported impeachment in the Quinnipiac poll, so a sizable portion of that 45 percent total must be political independents. That’s bad news for Trump and the GOP as they approach the November congressional elections, which will determine whether Republicans retain control of the House and thus the ability to block formal impeachment proceedings.

The goal of Steyer’s Need to Impeach campaign is to kindle these sparks of pro-impeachment sentiment into a bonfire of public outrage. The more that impeachment is viewed as a responsible, constitutional response to Trump, Steyer believes, the more people will support the idea and press their elected representatives to act accordingly. Toward that end, Steyer has pledged $40 million for Need to Impeach and an additional $30 million for NextGen America’s youth voting program. His strategy prioritizes younger people, especially millennials, but also the high-school students who have spearheaded a remarkable surge of activism against gun violence after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February.

“The $30 million is for the NextGen Rising program, which is organizing people under age 35 to register, engage, and participate in the political process,” Steyer explains. “In response to Parkland, we said that we’d spend an additional million dollars, which will be added to by [former congresswoman] Gabby Giffords’s group and Everytown for Gun Safety, to register high-school students. Let’s make sure those young people have the ability to participate in the polls in November.”

Need to Impeach’s online petition—which reads, in its entirety, “Donald Trump has brought us to the brink of nuclear war, obstructed justice, and taken money from foreign governments. We need to impeach this dangerous president,” followed only by a call for signatures—had been signed by almost 5.4 million people as of the end of May, according to the campaign. Free Speech for People, whose petition in coordination with RootsAction calls on Congress “to investigate whether sufficient grounds exist for…impeachment,” claims 1.39 million signatures. Yet how many of these people can actually be mobilized to take further action remains to be seen.

A lifelong athlete who calls himself “an incredibly competitive person,” Steyer, 60, clearly relishes the thrust and parry of political combat. Nor does he mind spending time in the limelight. Many of the 5.4 million signatures that Need to Impeach has collected thus far came from ads that the campaign has run on TV stations across the country—ads in which Steyer, casually dressed and speaking straight to camera, makes an earnest and, he believes, nonpartisan case for impeachment. He even bought time on Fox News, where Trump apparently saw the ad in October. (Not long after the president tweeted his displeasure, Fox pulled the ad.) Steyer has also been barnstorming across the country on a 30-city tour, holding town-hall meetings, attracting volunteers, and generating local and national news coverage that further amplifies his “Need to Impeach” message. Since December, articles on Steyer have appeared in many opinion-leader outlets, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Politico, Time, The New Yorker, and Bloomberg Businessweek.

Echoing the critique of Democratic power brokers, there has been a scolding, condescending tone to much of this coverage—although, as with some of the politicians, this critique is tempered by respect for Steyer’s wealth and influence. (He spent more on the 2014 and 2016 campaigns—$75 million and $91 million, respectively—than any other individual donor, including right-wing kingmakers Charles and David Koch.) Steyer’s impeachment push has been variously portrayed as naive, impractical, premature, and dangerous to Democrats’ chances in November.

What’s the point of pursuing impeachment, critics ask, when Republicans control Congress and have made it abundantly clear that they won’t hold Trump accountable? Although this objection has carried less weight as the odds have increased that Republicans will lose the House and perhaps even the Senate, it has been supplanted by two related complaints: first, that pushing impeachment actually plays into Trump’s and the GOP’s hands, energizing their right-wing base to get out and vote so that Democrats can’t remove their hero from the Oval Office. And second, that proceeding with impeachment without Republican support—and before special counsel Robert Mueller concludes his investigation—will make Democrats look recklessly partisan, further inflaming the ideological divide across the land and leading independents to punish Democrats at the polls in November.

The prospect of impeachment may excite die-hard liberals, these critics assert, but it leaves most of the country cold. They point out that most Democrats on Capitol Hill don’t support it; in separate votes in December and January, only 58 and 66 of the House’s 193 Democrats voted to impeach Trump. The Washington Post’s piece on Steyer smirked at the small crowd at one of the town halls the reporter happened to attend. A breathless headline writer at The New Yorker fretted that impeachment fervor could “Start a Democratic Civil War” and yield “disaster in the midterms.” Snarkier commentators attacked Steyer as a wealthy dilettante whose impeachment bid is really intended to gain name recognition for his own presumed presidential run in 2020. “Steyer impeachment ads seem to me more of a vanity project,” tweeted David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

Ask Steyer if he might be vulnerable to “billionaire’s disease”—the assumption that being fabulously successful at making money means that you will be fabulously successful at a completely different activity, such as politics—and he doesn’t bristle or lose his cool. Neither does he retreat. Steyer was born to great privilege—his father was a partner at Sullivan and Cromwell, the New York law firm that represented many of the largest US corporations of the 20th century (Ford, US Steel, General Electric) and enjoyed cozy relations with the CIA—and he excelled at elite schools (Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale, Stanford) before running one of the most successful investment companies of his era, all of which imparts a self-confidence that is not easily shaken.

“I don’t think it’s billionaire’s disease,” Steyer replies; “I think it’s entrepreneur’s disease. I’m someone who started my own business, and who was told by everybody that what I was doing was insane and would blow up. It’s not unusual for people who start their own businesses to look at a system that they see is failing and to think, ‘Wow, there’s a way to do this better.’ I don’t think this has anything to do with money; I think this has to do with a start-up mentality, where you believe that if there’s something wrong, you can change it and make it better, and you have the confidence to try.”

Then, channeling the take-no-prisoners attitude that he inflicted on underperforming CEOs during his hedge-fund years, Steyer picks apart his critics’ points one by one. He can’t resist starting with the fact that none of them bother to dispute impeachment is the right and patriotic course to pursue. For the David Axelrods of the world, impeachment is all about political positioning and electoral advantage; for Steyer, it’s a matter of principle. “I think the most important truth in American politics—maybe world politics—is that we have a president who is dangerous, lawless, and unfit,” he says. “And everyone is standing on their heads to not say that, because they don’t think it’s politically smart to say it. This is not about partisanship: If Trump is impeached, Mike Pence will become president. I disagree with Mike Pence about almost everything. But that doesn’t change the fact that Donald Trump is a very dangerous person to have in the Oval Office, and the founders gave us impeachment as a remedy for such a situation. This is a question about leadership: Are you willing to tell the truth about the most important fact in our political life and then figure out what to do about it? If not, then what are you doing in political office?”

From this philosophical plane, Steyer segues to the next stage of his counterattack: that disavowing impeachment is not only morally vacant but politically foolish. Articulating a critique of the Democratic Party that resembles Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s during the 2016 campaign, Steyer argues that Democrats make a huge mistake when they don’t speak plain truths and rally their base. Impeachment isn’t the only example. Citing the financial collapse of 2008, Steyer blasts the Democrats’ timidity: “Millions of people lose their homes [and] there is double-digit unemployment because of a financial flimflam—and no one went to jail! They [the Obama administration] didn’t even try.”

Ducking big issues and offering mealymouthed platitudes for fear of alienating swing voters causes Democrats to fatally depress the turnout of their most likely supporters: the rising electorate of single women, youth, and people of color. “Look at voter turnout in 2016, 2014, and 2010,” Steyer says. “Every year for the last decade when someone named Barack Obama wasn’t at the head of the ticket, turnout was terrible…. The 2014 midterms had the worst turnout since 1942,” when millions of servicemen were overseas and didn’t vote. “So does the policy of not talking about the most important issues really work?

“The largest group in American politics is the group who don’t vote at all,” Steyer continues. “We believe that telling the truth is the way to build trust. How are you going to deal with people unless you say up front, ‘These are the things we believe and are going to fight for’? Playing Republican-lite doesn’t work—if people want Republican-lite, that will be on the ballot.”

Why, then, has Bernie Sanders conspicuously failed to endorse the Need to Impeach campaign?

“I have no idea,” Steyer responds. “You’d have to ask him. I could hypothesize one thing: As a senator, if Trump gets impeached, [Sanders would be] on the jury. It’s possible he doesn’t want to say it for that reason.”

Sure enough, when The Nation asked Sanders why he hadn’t endorsed the efforts of Steyer and others to impeach Trump, the senator’s office offered his recent remark on Meet the Press: “You can’t jump the gun and determine that somebody should be impeached when you’re going to be voting on the impeachment issue. So I think you allow the Mueller investigation to do its course. You fight against anybody who wants to impede that investigation. But I think it is too early to talk about impeachment.”

What about the argument that Democrats will get more votes by talking about jobs, wages, health care, and other such bread-and-butter issues than by raising a ruckus about impeaching Trump?

“I think Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi did come out with something called ‘A Better Deal,’” Steyer says. “Well, how’s that working for you? I’ve asked about ‘A Better Deal’ at the town halls we’ve held across the country. Nobody has heard of it. I’m all in favor of talking about economics—I’ve been begging Democrats to do that for years. But I also think it’s insulting to the American people to say they can’t think and chew gum at the same time.”

Oddly, Steyer doesn’t mention the most obvious and piercing retort to the mainstream Democrats’ fear that pushing impeachment will enable the GOP to rally its own base in November. As John Nichols pointed out on “only a fool would imagine that, if Democrats do not mention the ‘i’ word, then Trump will refrain from doing so. No matter what Democrats say, Trump and his ruthless political strategists will mount a fall campaign that claims a Democratic takeover of the House will initiate an impeachment inquiry.”

Even so, Steyer’s crusade has prompted suspicions not only within mainstream Democratic circles, but also among some further to the left. Why hasn’t he joined forces with other organizations pressing for impeachment, such as Free Speech for People? Is Steyer really using impeachment as a stalking horse, boosting his visibility and local and state contacts in anticipation of a 2020 run? If he’s truly serious about saving democracy, why isn’t he doing the long-term local organizing that actually builds political power, instead of the rinse-and-repeat of voter registration for one-off electoral bids?

Steyer refused to be drawn into discussing a future run for president in 2020. As for big-footing other impeachment groups, Steyer actually was a featured speaker at a press conference that Free Speech for People sponsored in December at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. And he lashes back at the suggestion that Need to Impeach and NextGen America have been parachuting into local communities for short-term advantage. He points to what his organization accomplished in California in the months preceding Election Day 2016. “We spent a ton of time putting together a registration drive that registered 807,000 people across the state,” he says. “It’s a truism that if you show up two weeks before Election Day and say, ‘I’m here to help, we need your vote,’ no one believes you. The whole point about grassroots organizing is how long you’re there: How much a part of the community are you? How trusted are you? One of the great things about grassroots organizing is that you not only get results in a given year, but you’re building your capacity to get results after that year, too.”

Steyer’s staff files into the conference room, signaling his next meeting, but Steyer—always a high-energy kind of guy—is amped to reemphasize his overarching point. “There’s something hugely important here: We have a dangerous, corrupt, unfit president. The founders gave us a process for this, but the American people alone can do it—their elected officials won’t do it unless the people push them.” Flipping the House in November is important, he acknowledges, but “spending too much time on the tactics [of impeachment] is a mistake…. The real question is: Do the American people come to the conclusion that this guy has to go? And if they do, Republicans will throw him out in no time flat.”

But Americans have come to the conclusions that climate change is real and gun control is necessary, and Republicans still haven’t moved. Conceding the point, Steyer responds by sharpening his own. “It’s a question of whether we can make [impeachment] a voting issue,” he insists, “because that is exactly what elected officials do respond to.” He and the other advocates of impeachment have between now and Election Day, November 6, to make that happen.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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